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Pet Sins July 2004

Making Tenuous Connections - claiming unproven origins

Sometimes people are so eager to claim credit for a particular 'race' or ethnic group that they over-emphasize tenuous connections between distantly related peoples. There's nothing wrong with claiming connections, as long as one backs it up with good evidence and not just theory and speculation. There's nothing wrong with making speculations based on supporting evidence either, as long as the writer makes it clear that s/he is speculating.

Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. Sometimes, speculations are stated like 'facts'. And sadly, some 'educational' works out there don't even have the objectivity and quality to convince an unhostile lay reader who is open to the ideas but still asks questions. The most common example of this sort of claim is "Culture A owes its best parts (or even all its parts) entirely to Culture B", which is condescending towards Culture A and denies any indigenous creativity. This is hardly ever true. All great empires and civilizations have absorbed influences from other cultures - it's this cross-pollination that stimulates creativity. But that does not indicate a total absence of 'culture' in the so-called 'recipient' population (as if people didn't have a life before they came into contact with some allegedly superior 'donor' culture.)

Another type of a popular and not-always-provable claim is "People A and People B are biologically related because they hold a few ideas/practices in common". Common features in themselves prove nothing they could have arisen by independent invention as well as cultural diffusion.

Claims that the Japanese samurai tradition came from India

A web article claimed that the Hindu warrior class of the Ksatreyas were the precursors of the Japanese samurai:

Ksatreyas were like the Peace force - to keep kings and people in order. Military commanders were called Senani - a name reminiscent of the Japanese term Sensei which describes a similar status. The Japanese samurai also had similar traits to the Ksatreya. Their battle practices and techniques are often so close to that of the Ksatreya that we must assume the former came from India perhaps via China. The traditions of sacred Swords, of honorable self-sacrifice, and service to one's Lord are all found first in India.

First, the claim about the Japanese term "Sensei" is wrong. "Sensei" does not mean military commander. "Sensei" is comprised of two words "Sen" ('before') and "Sei" ('born', or 'person'), and could be literally translated as "one who is born earlier". It is a title of respect applied to teachers and other respected professionals. The Japanese term "Sensei" came from Chinese "Xiansheng" and does not appear to have any etymological relation to 'Senani' as alleged above. And secondly, don't warrior castes in most societies emphasize honorable self-sacrifice and service to one's lord? After all, these were the purposes for which a society cultivates warriors. Such qualities are not unique to any culture and holding them in common does not necessarily indicate a connection between two cultures.

N.B.

The Assumption of the 'White Caucasian' origin of ancient Egyptians

I was watching a promo on TV about the documentary "Nefertiti Resurrected", a program about the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. First, the viewer gets to see the famous Nefertiti bust up close. Then the Nefertiti bust cracks open, presumably to reveal the real flesh and blood Nefertiti. I couldn't help notice that the actress has lighter skin and a higher nose than the sculpture. In other words, she looks more like a European than the Nefertiti bust. And no, I am not at all an Afrocentrist. And I am not claiming the Egyptians of Nefertiti's time were of "pure" Negroid stock. Egypt, being at the intersection of Africa and Asia, is a place where different races mingled. I just can't help noting that modern depictions tend to "whiten" Egyptians. Well, maybe this isn't a malicious oversight. Perhaps they just can't find an actress that looks exactly like Nefertiti. And to the documentary's credit, most of the ancient Egyptians portrayed in that documentary were without doubt people of color.

This brings to mind the time I was watching some documentary on the making of The Scorpion King, where they were describing the creation of human characters from ancient drawings. An painting of an ancient Egyptian woman comes to life as the painting coalesces with the image a real life model. They tried to match the woman's pose, costume etc. So it was only too easy to see the nose bridge of the woman grow significantly higher as it morphed from picture to actual human. Again, a European model is used to illustrate 'authentic' ancient Egyptians.

A certain anti-Afrocentrist scholar, who wished to refute the claim of significant Egyptian influence on Greek culture, stated that Egypt's language, culture, and religion were undeniably African, with more commonalities with its subSaharan African neighbors than with Greek culture and language, which is Indo-European. The argument was: Greek culture, even if it accepted some Egyptian influences, does not owe its origin to the African Egyptian culture. I'm not taking sides on this argument, but my point is, both Afrocentrist scholars and anti-Afrocentrist scholars insist that Egypt is African. But the average person, particular a person of white European descent, is loathe to admit this.

For an example of how deeply people have become vested in the idea of a white Egypt, see ColorQ World's review of Prince of Egypt.

E.K.

Claims of the presence of Chinese descendants on the East African coast

I was reading a book titled "When China ruled the Seas", which had on its cover a picture of a Chinese emperor of the Ming dynasty. My friends, who saw the book cover, said that the depiction of the emperor looks Caucasian. If even the cover is ethnically inaccurate, I guess doesn't reflect too well on the artist and publisher.

Anyway, one chapter in the book claimed that Chinese had migrated to the East African coast, leaving their descendants as the Bajuni islanders. I'm claiming there are no Chinese descendents on the East African coast but I find some of the arguments put forth by the author unconvincing. The 'evidence' for the Chinese descent of the Bajuni islanders include the following points:

  • The Bajuni people have lighter skin and straighter hair than other black Africans
    Why I find that unconvincing: Arabs and Indians were also present on the East African coast, and certainly in greater numbers than the Chinese, so who is to say that the lighter skin and straighter hair could not have come from Arab and Indian ancestors?
  • The people there beat drums with their fingers "as in the orient", as different from indigenous Africans, who supposedly only beat drums with a special stick
    Why I find that unconvincing: I have seen many traditional performers from indigenous African cultures beat drums with their fingers and hands. I confirmed this with my African friend, who also said the author's claims of 'oriental' drum-beating styles are inaccurate.
  • Silk production is found in that area
    Why I find that unconvincing: Many non-Chinese people produced silk - Thais, Indians, Burmese, Tibetans and even Arabs as far away as Syria.
  • The name 'Bajuni' is supposedly derived from 'Baju', the Malayo-Indonesian word for the clothes worn by Chinese.
    Why I find that unconvincing: 'Baju' in Malay means 'shirt/blouse', and it is used on shirts/blouses in general. It is in no way specifically associated with Chinese garments. Bajuni could well have a different etymological origin than 'baju'. And the Chinese language is from a different linguistic family from the Malayo-Polynesian linguistic family, which makes the connection even more tenuous.

J.N.

Examining Claims of the pre-Columbian African Presence in America

The book They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America cited the findings of Polish craniologist Weircinski as evidence for the presence of Negroid people in pre-Columbian Americas: "13.5 percent of the skeletons examined in the pre-Classic Olmec cemetery of Tlatilco were Negroid."

I'd like to understand how a 'craniologist' determines 'race'. But as I understand it, the problem is with the three-race system. For example, a lot of Indians, most actually, are dolichocephalic and prognathous. Once you look at a bit of human morphological variation, you realize racial types are untenable. A lot of this stuff wrt the Olmecs (and indeed any trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific diffusion) goes back to the 19th century when they argued that only the elite could invent certain things.

It gets confusing. Heyerdahl's proving that Egyptians *could* reach the Caribbean or Peruvians *could* reach Easter Island doesn't mean they did; we forget that Heyerdahl knew where he was going and thus could estimate how long the journey would take.

Oh, if you want to see what full-blooded North American Indians look like, here's a link to photographs from the turn of the century: The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis

J.B.

Claims of the African presence in Southeast Asia

I was reading the book African Presence in Early Asia, which is a compilation of different articles on the subject by various authors. There were some good articles, but some other articles did nothing more than claim that certain Asian peoples were 'black' or of African origin without backing up their claims. There was one 'ok' article about the 'black' kingdoms in East Asia and Southeast Asia. The evidence cited was ancient Chinese texts which describe the people as 'black'.

Now I don't know if the writer of that article knew that the word 'black' in Chinese, when used to describe skin color, is most accurately translated as 'dark' in English. Tan people are described as 'black'; in fact, anything darker than pale yellow is 'black'. I'm not claiming that the people of ancient Asian kingdoms weren't black-skinned, merely that Chinese descriptions of skin color may not be a reliable source of information.

Now, there really isn't much of a debate about whether black people were the inhabitants of ancient Asia. The black Australians did come from Asia. And some Asian populations today still show some Australoid features. Australians are also genetically closest to the Southeast Asians. However, Australians and subSaharan Africans have been found to be the most genetically unrelated people in the world, which really does not help some Afrocentrist claims of a close genetic relationship between yellow/brown Asians and black Africans. Now some people interpret such statements as 'trying to deny any relationship between African blacks and Asians' because of alleged racist biases. Suit yourself. I'm merely stating that genetic testing puts black Australians and Southeast Asians as closest relatives and black Australians and black Africans as genetically distant.

If we're going to cry 'racism' at everything we don't agree with instead of being objective and examining the different opinions and facts out there, then we're not doing anyone a favor, least of all ourselves, nor are we going to convert people to our viewpoint by using emotional blackmail and loaded terms like 'racist'. Too often people wield the word 'racist' like it's a convenient shield to hide behind, something used to silence others. I have certainly met my fair share of real racists, and have no intention of suggesting that the term never be used, just that it should be used carefully and certainly not lightly. Too many unproven claims will injure future claimants who would then not be taken seriously.

Y.L.